For about 50 years, Susie Bates endured domestic violence.
It began when she was molested by relatives as a 3- or 4- year-old. It ended more than a decade ago when she finally had had enough.
"My self-confidence was below the floor," said Bates, 67. "I had no self-esteem and I was afraid of everything. I gravitated to abusive relationships. That's all I knew."
Bates is not dissimilar to other victims of abuse in that she thought the abuse was her own fault.
"It went from sexual to physical, emotional, mental, and to financial. I went through a horrible divorce and I was so low I had no other choice but to look up."
Jessica Browning, 28 of Harrodsburg, nodded her head.
"You can't get any lower," she said. "That's rock bottom."
Unlike Bates, however, Browning's abuse was all verbal. She met a young man in college, fell in love and only weeks later became his target for denigrating rants.
"One night we were going to his apartment and I noticed one of his headlights was out," Browning said. "So I told him you need to be careful. He cussed me out and berated me. He called me names.
"I brushed it off and said he must have had a bad day," she said. "I had never had a boyfriend in high school. He was my first love. But little things like that kept happening. That became the norm."
Browning finally broke free of the verbal beat-downs after nearly two years and she has never looked back.
Instead, Browning and Bates established Domestic Violence Prevention and Intervention Consulting, Inc., last year as a ministry and a means of reaching out to women and young girls to make them more aware of dating violence and of physical, emotional and verbal abuse.
They will tell their stories and answer questions at a domestic violence forum and self-defense training session called "What's Love Got to Do With It?" The forum is sponsored by the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., Lexington Alumnae Chapter, and the West End Community Empowerment Project (WCEP). It is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Feb. 8 at the Black and Williams Neighborhood Community Center, 498 Georgetown Street.
Also, Darlene Thomas, executive director of GreenHouse17, formerly known as Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program, will discuss how domestic violence affects more than the victim and give information about available resources for those in harm's way.
The Rev. Maxine L. Thomas, of St. Paul AME Church and co-chair of the sorority's domestic violence committee, said participants should dress comfortably because there will be an interactive self-defense session with Craig Caudill, director and chief instructor at Bluegrass Budokai in Lexington.
"This is our opportunity to do something proactive about domestic violence," Thomas said. "I have a very close relative who was abused and that was my inspiration for studying and learning more about domestic violence. As a family, we went through that. It is not just a woman problem. It affects each and every person in the community."
Signs of abuse, Browning said, include increased isolation and withdrawal from friends and family; and a change in attitude.
"I was secretive," Browning said. "I didn't tell anybody, didn't talk with anybody, not even my mother."
Victims sometimes believe they are all alone and that is not true, she said.
"Open your mouth. Talk with your mother, talk with your parents. Leave. Run at the first red flag."
Co-workers, family members, and friends may recognize signs of abuse but don't know how to help.
"Don't pressure her," Bates said. "And don't ask why she's not leaving. She is not ready." Instead, help the victim to prepare to move on. Be a safe house; help pack clothes, save money, and gather identification.
"You can't do it all of a sudden," she said. "We all know the day they leave is the most dangerous period in their lives."
The abuser is losing control, she said, and that could also place the helper in danger of retaliation as well. Healing is gradual, Bates said, but it does come.
Thomas is hoping a diverse group of people come to the forum, including men. "We want to educate the community and empower the community to break the silence surrounding domestic violence. We cannot ignore it.
"Love does not abuse or belittle," she said.